A Look to the Past for CC's Future: Do Starters with "CC-Like" Declines Recover?

It's about time to stop defending guys with, "it's too early to conclude…." Bad performance for almost a month is worrisome – especially if the badness just continues from prior years. I already wrote that about Carlos Beltran, so now it's CC Sabathia's turn. The problem it isn't his four 2015 starts; it's his almost 300 IP of an 80 ERA+ (4.97 ERA) spanning 2013-15. This is one of those times you can predict baseball: falling as far and as fast as CC is uncommon, but not unprecedented; he isn't the first once-talented 30something to suffer a substantial, sudden decline – which I confirmed by searching the Baseball Reference "Play Index" tool for pitchers with a decline like CC's. I generated a list of all 30something starters, in the past 50 years, with a career ERA+ of over 95 (i.e., average-ish or better) who, after at least six full seasons (i.e., a track record of success), suddenly had an ERA+ under 85 (in at least 150 IP).

There were 28, all in the past 35 years - so a decline like CC's happens to about one guy a year. I then looked at how each of the 28 did after his sudden decline. CC's 119 career ERA+ is the best of the group, but that's misleading, because that stat doesn't include all of his ongoing decline phase. Within the group, several had a 114-124 ERA+ before their last few years (e.g., Blyleven, Lackey, Drabek, Tewksbury). So CC is in the upper quartile of this group, but no outlier – which is to say this really is a "CC-like" group: average to strong longtime starters who declined suddenly and dramatically in their 30s.

So, how does it look for CC, based on what came after the prior 28 CC-like declines? Well, is "bleak" somewhere in between "hopeless" and "optimistic"?

(1) Complete Flop – Almost Half (shaded green in the below table): 13 of the 28 remained awful (or left baseball entirely), not logging a season within the next two with an ERA+ even as high as 95.

(2) Underwhelming Recoveries – Almost One-Fifth (shaded yellow): 5 of the 28 bounced back modestly but then had weak, short careers thereafter: (a) they logged a season with an ERA+ of over 95 within 1-2 years of the decline; (b) but the rest of their career of each was poor, failing to total 300 innings with an ERA+ within 10% of their career level.

(3) Successes – Just Over One-Third (shaded red): 10 of the 28 recovered well from their decline year: (a) they logged a season with an ERA+ of over 95 within a year or two; (b) for the rest of their careers after the bad season, they logged at least 300 innings with an ERA+ within 10% of their career level.

Sabathia Comps (PNG) So the comps are bleak, but not hopeless – but if you ask questions focused on the theme, "what's different about CC," I think it looks all the bleaker.

Isn't he better than most of the 28? Yes, but that doesn't seem to help his odds. Of the top quarter of the group (by career ERA+), two were in the "success" group, three in the "underwhelming" group, and two in the "complete flop" group. So better pitchers don't have better odds of recovering lost form; after all, a fall to a sub-85 ERA+ is steeper for a CC, Blyleven, or Lackey than it is for a mediocrity like a Sanderson or Suppan.

Can't he win with the stuff he has? Maybe, but it's too common for guys with his current pitch portfolio to get clobbered the exact way CC does: with the long ball, no matter how good their K and BB rates. Per Fangraphs, his fastball has gotten hit hard since 2012, and his best pitch in 2015 has been his changeup, which he's throwing 23.5% of the time, vastly above his career rate of changeup use (15.5%). Low-velocity changeup specialists may command the zone well, but when a weak fastball catches too much of the plate, or a hitter sees a changeup coming, look out – which is why those folks' HR rates can be sky-high even as their K/BB rates look impressive.

Isn't he a savvy veteran who can adjust? Well, maybe he could claim to need time to adjust to velocity loss and knee weakness for 50, 100, or 150 bad innings – but it's been almost 300 innings of badness, and there's no sign he's learned any new tricks, so I think hopes have dimmed or died that he's learned "to pitch smart and keep hitters off balance," because "scouts keep [saying] … what a 'pitcher' he is[,] that Sabathia knows what he’s doing out there even with diminished stuff."

And finally, there's no way to say this politely, but CC got to this point by being kind of stupid and undisciplined: he's a professional athlete who admits, until nearly age 31, to "eating Cap’n Crunch every day … by the box" – and then, shocking nobody, by age 33, the knee he spent years landing his 300-pound frame on developed "a degenerative condition in the cartilage" that cost him almost two seasons.

It's no answer to say, "athletes need calories": the year CC was starting to toy with giving up his whole-Cap'n-box diet, A-Rod was already drawing a mix of admiration and mockery (I won't even link Lupica here on general principle) for following the sort of high-protein/whole-vegetable diet that everyone already knew was optimal if you don't identify as a 300-pound man-child with the dietary discipline of my six year-old boy ("Before a game, A-Rod says he always eats the same thing: five slices of turkey, no bread, and half a sweet potato -- 'no oil, no butter, no nothing.' And for dinner, Rodriguez loads up on fish and vegetables, like steamed spinach or asparagus -- again, plain, without oil, butter or salt. And ... baked kale chips" -- a slightly different snacking option than the Cap'n).

I swear I'll post somehing optimistic soon; having crapped on Beltran and Sabathia, I promise my new beat isn't, "hey, here's the next guy I've lost all hope in." I just think we've seen a decline from both that's not only steep enough, but also prolonged enough, to say that any success the 2015 and 2016 Yankees have will be in spite of, and probably after they give up on, Beltran and Sabathia.